I’ve been trying to understand how people experience one another. When I watch them communicating it seems foreign to me. It appears effortless, but I know that’s not possible. There’s a history to it, a biological sleight-of- hand.
Human interaction carries with it a lifetime of social data. Decoding nuances of body language and subtleties of speech evolved out of necessity, one tribe to another, as we met along the road of life. So why do I find myself standing in the ditch?
The answer is social impairment—an unfortunate byproduct of many mental illnesses, and a key risk factor in mine. Schizophrenia is haunted by misunderstandings. Too often connections never get made.
I’d like to tell you that I’ve accepted this fact, and that I’ve overcome one of the most difficult aspects of living with this disorder, but I’d be lying.
I can’t always account for the nature of my symptoms, but I understand that they’re at the core of the disconnect. My occasional inability to distinguish what’s happening from what’s not creates a fluid barrier of uncertainty. Compartmental speech is not my forte. Delusions of reference form the content of my beliefs. While initially entertaining to some, my pension for free association becomes rapidly annoying to others.
Medication helps to slow my synapses, and therapy enables me to consider a common vantage point, but beyond that, the data collected in my disordered mind does little to enhance my attempts at socializing.
Working memory deficit makes conversation challenging because I’m not always present in a commonplace way. Depersonalization and derealization make me question the value of being here. We’re told to let experience be our guide, but when nothing is anchored in reality, reliability becomes random at best.
In those moments when I’m not capable of thinking linearly, when I’m dealing with audio hallucinations, when I have no point of reference other than the obscure associations my disorder creates, I unknowingly risk my connections with others. I assume that we’re exchanging social cues when we’re not. I have no innate capacity for discerning this, so I study you for clues. I imitate your mannerisms. And while I sense that I’m not perfectly in sync, I wonder—to what degree do I appear alien?
Early detection might have made a difference in the quality of my life, but that’s not what happened. I went years without a diagnosis or treatment. People defined me as eccentric; it made my behavior acceptable. The conventional image of writers and artists was far more romantic than the damaging stereotypes attached to schizophrenia.
Depictions of violent madmen persist, and the resultant stigma triggers a reactive denial in me. I’m not that monster. But if I trust you, and you believe the cliché, then we both unwittingly uphold the status quo, inviting shame and depression into the picture. Framed that way, I am the beast. From there, things just get ugly, which is why even the simplest contact is so important to my survival.
Statistics show that nearly thirty percent of people diagnosed with schizophrenia will attempt suicide. Unpredictable thought processes make intervention difficult, increasing the risk of successful completion. Meaningful relationships with family and friends could prevent this. It’s not without effort, but it’s possible and essential.
Making friends can be challenging for anyone. There’s maintenance involved: the provision of courtesy, respect, understanding, and kindness, without expectation of return. Living with schizophrenia presents a unique set of conditions. I understand that investments are necessary, but my symptoms can alter that perspective in a heartbeat. Keeping the factors in focus means I have to remain on point.
Schizophrenia is not something that most people can relate to. I’ve lost people I cared for, but it needn’t have been that way. Perhaps it was hard for them to understand how important they were to me, and how much they helped. Facing the challenges of mental illness together might have lowered their frustrations and allowed for better communication. Hindsight is always twenty/twenty.
I’ve had people tell me they were afraid to befriend me when they first heard that I had schizophrenia. Thankfully, for both of us, they took a chance and overcame their concerns. That’s what it looks like to advocate for change. Interacting one-on-one. Out of the ditch and back onto the road.
Those romantic images of poets and artists succumbing to madness may have appealed to my adolescent heart, but the truth is so much more macabre. Alien or alienated, isolation is not worth the toll it takes. I can’t imagine spending the rest of my life alone, but then again, I can. I’m not going to let it stop there. Reaching out is a risk I’m willing to take. For my health, my happiness, and for whatever follows. I’m right here.